The book of Galatians is challenging and powerful. Written by the apostle Paul early in his ministry (around 49-50 AD), it reveals one of the first serious doctrinal struggles in the church. The main issue at stake was legalism vs. grace.
This letter is surprisingly relevant to the church and its struggles today. In today’s church, some of the most significant misunderstandings are how and when a person is saved from their sins. Everyone believes they can live and act however they want and still be saved. Paul makes it clear that salvation is only found in trusting in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anything else will not work and might make things worse.
The problem in Galatia was false teachers who had infiltrated the church and begun to convince them that Paul was not an apostle and that the gospel he preached was not good enough. They insisted that all Gentile Christians had to come under the Law of Moses and submit to keeping the rules like circumcision. This push to return to a faith of keeping the rules called into question the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul had nothing but strong words for these false teachers and any Galatian Christian who would agree to return to legalism. He called it “desertion” (Gal. 1:6) and turning to a “different gospel.” In Galatians 2:4, Paul said that returning to a law system and agreeing to circumcision would be no different than agreeing to be enslaved. It would mean that you are “severed” from Christ (Gal. 5:4) and have “fallen away from grace.” Making the point even more vital, he pronounced a “curse” (Gr. anathema, Gal. 1:9) on anyone who would trust in or teach a different gospel.
For this reason, Galatians is a foundational letter in the New Testament that has drastically affected all who seriously study it with humility and a desire to learn. It was a favorite of Martin Luther, who called it “his dear epistle… and his wife” and credited it with his salvation.
Throughout the letter, Paul draws our attention to the contrast between the two modes of salvation. You must know about these contrasts because they help us understand his theology in Galatians. He contrasts flesh versus Spirit; works of the law versus faith and promise; the curse versus the inheritance; slavery versus freedom; Hagar versus Sarah (slave versus free); the old Jerusalem and Mt. Sinai versus the new Jerusalem from above; Ishmael versus Isaac; being under the law versus being led by the Spirit; and lastly, the works of the flesh versus the fruits of the Spirit.
So, what can we learn from this great book? First, it is foolish to turn away from faith in Jesus to try to be good enough, keep the rules, and depend upon our effort before God. Second, faith is more important than rule-keeping! Abraham was counted righteous before the law, before the need to be good enough, and that is what we want and need. Circumcision, also representative of the law of Moses, was not even an issue for Abraham when God called him righteous (Rom. 4:3-4). Lastly, this book teaches us that faith in Jesus gives us new life, a new faith, and a new and better way to be saved before God.